Attorneys in Howard County are doing their part to make a meaningful difference in the lives of those who are handicapped and cannot afford an attorney in a civil law or family law matter. By volunteering to staff the Circuit Court’s free legal advice clinics, attorneys are leading by example, as they share their successes with those in need. As a result, equal access to justice in Howard County is one step closer to becoming a reality. This statement by civil law attorney David Coaxum simply says it all: “The true essence of our work as lawyers is to serve the community.”
In late 2009, when the economy began to face turbulent times and grant funds became difficult to obtain, the Circuit Court for Howard County did not know if its free legal assistance programs would survive. Previously, attorneys who staffed the Civil Law Center and the Family Law Assistance Program received reduced hourly rates; however, by 2010, if the Court’s programs were to remain in existence, these attorneys needed to volunteer on a purely pro bono basis.
“We are blessed with the knowledge, ability, and compassion to help people through tough life circumstances in 15 to 30 minutes,” says Gregory Yancy, a civil law attorney. “It is in these moments, when attorneys give to those who are furthest down, that we show the legal profession in its truest and most positive light.”
Thanks to the sincerity and commitment of Mr. Yancy and many other local attorneys, the Court’s free legal advice programs have flourished for the past three years, despite the lack of funds. The Court’s volunteer base has actually increased, as local attorneys continue to act out of thankfulness, effect change, and give back to their community in tangible ways. Margaret Oliver, a frequent volunteer attorney for the Family Law Assistance Program, says, “I believe that we have an obligation to assist those folks who cannot afford legal services, and I am blessed to be able to give back to the community. The gratitude that comes back is icing on the cake.”
When we act out of integrity, we are manifesting a better future for ourselves and for the world. We are creating and maintaining win-win scenarios. Phil Wright, an attorney who often staffs the Civil Law Center, says, “There is something liberating about just dispensing counsel and helping people help themselves. The people using the services are grateful and some generally have absolutely no idea about how to navigate the problems confronting them. It is a pleasure to guide them.”
One of the Court’s monthly family law program volunteers, Kimberly Arn, expressed her feelings this way: “The law and court procedure are complicated and overwhelming. Just because people don’t have the money for an attorney, as most do not, they should not have to go through a very difficult experience made worse by the fact that they can’t afford to get advice and guidance on how to use the court system.”
The Pro Bono Resource Center of Maryland (PBRC) is pleased to present this month’s guest columnist, Sandy S. Brewer, J.D., M.S.L.S. Ms. Brewer is the Director of the Law Library and Manager of Legal Advice Clinics for the Circuit Court of Howard County. She was inspired to write this piece after attending the Regional Meeting of the Court of Appeals’ Standing Committee on Pro Bono Legal Service in March, which was proudly coordinated by PBRC.
Several Howard County attorneys are first motivated to perform pro bono work for one reason or another, and then later, these individuals continue to volunteer for reasons that they never could have predicted. Achieving both personal and professional satisfaction from reaching out to your fellow human beings, well, it just doesn’t get much better than that. Says Wright: “I felt that volunteering for the Civil Law Center provided me with the opportunity to use my talents and education to serve those whose legal problems fall into the limbo of being real consequential problems, but which would rarely be handled by attorneys due to the economics of private practice. I keep volunteering for the same reason, but also for the unexpected satisfaction it gives to me as a professional. You can educate and help several clients and yet you carry no deadlines and do not have to produce anything.”
Empowering those who suffer from poverty-based inequities in the civil justice system is not just a concept…it is a real possibility. Howard County’s volunteer attorneys feel that they have a moral responsibility to make a positive and significant difference in the lives of self-represented litigants. In addition, pro bono work can be fun. “I enjoy my time at the clinic and feel grateful for the opportunity to meet the people, listen to each person, and see how I can best help them,” says Margaret Oliver.
“I feel like a batter who hit every fast ball, curve ball, and slider thrown at me,” says Yancey. “I feel like a coach who taught people who may have struck out in life how to pull it together to hit the next fast ball, the next curve ball, or the next slider thrown at them. I feel great!”
Sheryl Snee, an attorney who staffs both the Court’s civil law and family law programs, sums her experiences up simply: “I am privileged to help people in our county.”